Tooling down I-25 on a bright weekday morning in winter and turning off at Cerillos was a weirdly normal experience, right down to Leon saying are we there yet? And passing the scatter of pseudo-Pueblo style outlet stores and the Kitty Big House where Julia had stashed her cats when they went on vacations out of town—the interstate skirted the ragged eastern edge of Santa Fe, well away from the glitz and antiquity of the historic district. It still wasn't a big city, but there were men alive who been born before the first paved roads went in downtown.
He watched every possible ambush point. He also kept carefully under the speed limit and unlike the majority of local drivers—who considered it giving information to the enemy—used his turn signal well in advance. Santa Fe had about sixty thousand people and the city police force was small in proportion, and he'd be bound to be recognized by one of the uniforms if he was pulled over. The official story was that he'd simply vanished with no forwarding address after being put on paid leave when his partner got killed. Or possibly he'd just died. He'd fought the temptation to contact his sister for the same reason—all he could do would be to endanger her. The best possible thing would be for her family to think he had died or run off into the wild blue yonder baying at the moon.
The little municipal airport was out at the end of Airport Road, in the part of town where people whose grandfathers had lived in the downtown adobes resided in little fake adobes with littered yards, earth-colored stucco over frame and flat roofs that leaked like bastards at the slightest provocation. The surviving real adobes and Territorials had all been thoroughly pimped up for the brie-and-chablis crowd by now.
Eric Salvador grinned at the thought. One of the early American governors of what was then the New Mexico Territory had made a farewell speech that included telling the locals to stop building in adobe or keeping goats because the gringos would always look down on anyone who did that sort of low-rent greaser stuff, though he'd been slightly more tactful in his choice of words.
How things have changed.
That bunch ate a lot of goat cheese now, too, while the goat-herders' descendants bought Wisconsin Velveeta at Sam's Club.
The airport could take jets; there was a regular shuttle to Denver, Dallas-Ft. Worth and LA, though he'd always flown out of Albuquerque because it cost the earth to start here. Mostly it was private planes, of which Santa Fe had more than its share. And one leased by a certain Adrian Brézé when he needed it, which would be waiting for them, engines hot and pre-cleared to leave fast. He felt a little nervous even so.
"This is Adrian's plane we use?" Cheba asked as they turned into the parking lot.
She seemed a little nervous now too, and he hid a smile as he realized that in her case it was simply that she'd never flown before. He pulled into the parking lot and halted several rows away, just in case... he didn't think there was an ambush waiting with the body scanner, but you never knew.
He was tempted to just leave the keys in the car, but the thought offended his tidy instincts and police training both. If the Brotherhood didn't send someone, eventually the Humvee would be towed. It wasn't registered to Adrian Brézé, either. He'd found out last year during the investigation into Ellen Tarnowski's disappearance—Ellen Brézé now—that the man just didn't exist as far as the records were concerned. If you were Shadowspawn and wanted to, you could exist in the cracks between the walls of the world, passing like a ghost. So could your retainers.
"No," he said. "It's some sort of rental thing. When we talked it over Adrian said he thought owning a private jet he'd only be using a few times a year was... showing off. Peter will be on board—"
Some sort of rent-a-servant was waiting for them, with a dolly to take the luggage. There was enough he'd have to make two trips; Eric swung out and gave the surroundings a cautious scan, while Cheba organized the twins, who were fussing over what toys, books and devices they'd carry with them in their hands and backpacks and what would be put away. They weren't exactly spoiled, but they'd been used to getting their own way a lot.
Eric turned just as the baggage guy came back, trailing the empty dolly. The man gave a meaningless tip-scenting smile that was almost as tooth-grating as the sort of asskissing from lowlifes you got as a cop, and which was apparently one of the drawbacks of giving off serious-money-and-power vibrations.
The man pitched backward spinning, with a one-inch black hole turning red in his chest and a head-sized crater in his back, black and red and pink-white. The impact of the body on the ground was the limp, almost boneless thump of instant death. Behind him on the façade of the terminal a glass window starred and cracked, the bullet scarcely slowed down by its passage through body, ribs and spine.
Christ. .50 cal round, flashed through him.
Nothing else did that sort of damage, or tossed bodies around Hollywood style with a single shot.
He was diving for the ground before he recognized the sound: a .50 caliber going by, and close, after going through the body of the Humvee, in-and-out somewhere. Ticking and clunking sounds made it obvious that it had gone through the engine compartment, probably hitting something vital in the process.
He hugged the ground and tried to spot the shooter's location while looking under it. That was pretty futile, given the distance a fifty caliber could cover and the amount of scrubby hillside and small buildings within that distance. There was gear that could pinpoint a sniper with half a second of his first shot, but for starters he didn't have the gear and for seconds if the sniper was an adept he could probably screw with it.
Another heavy crack, and this time it took out the left front wheel. He looked back, and Cheba had the kids down the space between the rear seats and the front. She was also covering them with their own body, over their objections and squeals; that was very brave, but also pretty futile. Fifty caliber hard points would blast right through light armor plate, or a respectable thickness of concrete. Or three bodies in a row.
Four more shots, no more than a second apart and beautifully placed to make sure the Humvee wasn't going anywhere.
Okay, the sniper's trying to immobilize us, not kill anybody. Correction, is being very sure not to kill the kids. He's got a honking great Barrett or something like that, semiauto from the timing, and he's got a good firing position... but he waited until we stopped to shoot. Didn't want the Humvee tumbling and burning or moving the wrong part into his sight picture. Definitely not willing to take risks with the kids, which means they're trying to pin us down while they do something else—
When someone tried to immobilize you, the obvious tactic was to refuse to stay still and to do that right away, before whatever plan they had in mind could get into action. You didn't let the other guy's plan work if you could avoid it, he didn't know what their plan was precisely, but it depended on him hiding behind the Humvee. A perfect solution a couple of seconds too late was worth a hell of a lot less than a passable one done in time. And he had a weird sort of safety factor here, though using it went against all his instincts.
"Cheba, take Leila, follow me, and keep close!"
For a wonder she did exactly what he told her without haring off on a tangent or stopping to argue; but then he'd known she had natural combat-nerves, hardly like a civilian at all. They each grabbed a child, hugging them close. She thought they were putting their bodies between the children and the sniper... but anyone good enough to shoot that well would know their weapon, which meant that the two were using the children as human shields even if she didn't know it. He snarled as he led the way; it was not something he wanted to do, but he'd think about that later.
"Sniper!" he yelled to the TSA guard who'd come to the entrance, and flashed his—very outdated—police ID. "He's using a .50 cal, something milspec. Get some rapid-response out here, call SFPD and the Armory, warn 'em!"
There was only one guard, and this place minimal checks—this was a very minor airport, and mostly for private planes, a one-horse operation. Or more precisely a three-runway one with a single modest single-story building for a terminal. He could see the act being swallowed; terrorists rarely ran in already under fire, protectively clutching children. That was why his gun was firmly inside his coat.
There was also a fairly big National Guard HQ only a mile away on I-25, upgraded a few years ago, and they could almost certainly scrape up a reaction team.
"I'm on it, get under cover!" the man said. "Everybody, get flat, God-dammit to hell!"
He was doing so himself, and holding his piece as if he knew what to do with it. Probably he'd seen action somewhere, there were a fair number of guys their age like that around.
"Fuckin' A!" Eric said, and led his party right through the building and onto the runway. No swinging jetways from an isolated boarding area here, just tarmac and ramps on wheels.
Everyone else inside the building was running around and some of them were even screaming while they did it, which meant he had a short window of opportunity. If he'd thought the shooter was trying to kill everyone in his party he wouldn't dare head for the aircraft; it was well within range, once it taxied out from behind the terminal building. But as it was the safest place for them all to be was in the air; if they'd been reluctant to shoot at a moving car with the kids in it, they'd be twice as unwilling to shoot at an aircraft they were aboard.
The jet was a Bombadier 900, a big business model with twin engines at the rear that could be configured for two dozen passengers. A worried-looking female in airline gear—the copilot, apparently—was hesitating at the foot of the ramp, and there didn't look to be anything else even thinking of taking off, even a Cessna.
"Just get us in the air!" Eric said, as he hustled everyone up the ramp.
That was the sweaty bit. Cheba and he were probably safe enough right now with the building blocking things and all... but if he was wrong in his snap judgment of where the shooter was, and the bastard had an angle on this spot and felt confident enough to try for a head shot, he was screwed, or probably just dead. He'd seen what those big bullets did to a human body, and not just today.
"We can't just—" the copilot said, following him in.
"Yes you fucking can," Eric snarled, turning and shoving the door closed and dogging it himself
For an instant he felt almost limp with relief. Now he was invisible from the outside, and the enemy weren't willing to just shoot up the vehicle he was in. Probably.
"Now just do it!"
Peter Boase was there; Eric handed off Leon and turned to glare at the flier. He was prepared to get things going at gunpoint if he really had to, and trust to Adrian to clear things up later, but that was insanely risky—if they ended up in detention the other side could walk in and get them. The copilot gave him a long look, a short nod and turned back into the cockpit without further encouragement. Eric blew out a long breath and collapsed into one of the recliners, fumbling at the seatbelt.
"I need a drink," he croaked, making his right hand relax and unclench on the butt of the coach gun inside his coat.
There was nothing he could do with that now except commit suicide, which was admittedly starting to have a certain abstract appeal. The engines roared as he strapped himself in, and acceleration pushed him into the softness. The whine rose and then the nose, and then the final bump as they left the tarmac.
"That was like Call of Duty!" Leon enthused, bouncing in his seat and calling around Peter's body where the scientist was strapping him in. "Wow! Magnifique!"
"Kid, shut up before I shoot you myself," Eric said—but sotto voce.
The white-green-dun-brown expanse of the New Mexican countryside turned beneath them as the aircraft banked, climbing. For a moment he could see the toy-tiny shape of the Humvee, now burning with a flicker of yellow flame and drift of black smoke—evidently the sniper had lost his temper and emptied a magazine into it. He felt his stomach muscles unclench as they gained altitude; they were over the height a rifle could reach fairly quickly, even that sort of monster-truck model. He unsnapped and stuck his head into the cockpit.
"Any problems?" he said.
The pilot was in his fifties, with a gray-and-brown buzzcut and faded blue eyes. "Nope," he said. "Tower's chewing my ass for blowing Dodge in the middle of a quote terrorist incident unquote, but I'd already had clearance so it won't amount to much."
"Thanks," Eric said.
The man shrugged. "Just doing my job."
Reaction made his hands shake a little as he turned back into the body of the plane. The interior in this one was pale and mostly open, comfortable in an impersonal way, with six recliner-style seats, a table and chairs, a small kitchen nook and a bathroom with a compact shower. Peter caught his eye and mimed wiping sweat off his brow. Cheba was already busy with something; then she shoved a bottle into his hand and he took a swig of the beer—Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale again, and he grinned in sheer relief
It sluiced the gummy dryness out of his mouth a lot better than a suck of tepid rubber-tasting water from a camelback. He'd done a fair impression of a SABA himself, just now, and it had worked. For now. He made himself file the whole thing on the ongoing psychological damage memory chip and move on with an effort of will.
Instead he looked around the inside of the aircraft.
Well, this beats the hell out of sitting buttcheek to buttcheek in webbing seats in a Herky Bird on a twelve-hour troop lift full of eau de piss and Red Bull, he thought. Not to mention your conventional Misery Special in coach. I wonder if Adrian Brézé needs an ex-cop long-term? Could be worse jobs after this is all over...
"Were people really shooting at us?" Leila said. "I wasn't sure."
"Uhhh... " It's usually better to tell kids the truth. "Yeah, but they weren't trying to hit you. Just the car. And maybe me and Cheba."
"Mom and Dad will both be angry at them," Leila said. "They were shooting close to us."
"And then they'll be soooorrrrrreeeeee," Leon said.
With that both the children seemed to lose interest, looking around at their transportation instead. Apparently they were much less impressed than he was.
"Mom's plane is a lot bigger than this. It has a pool," Leila said, looking up from her tablet. "It's called Le Misérable Excès."
"It's an Airbus 380," Leon said knowledgeably. "Really cool. We have our own bedrooms and there's this game room where the walls are screens and you can play interactive Doom and stuff. Hi, Peter! You look like you're feeling a lot better than you were before."
The slight sharp-featured blond man was a little older than Eric, but...
Looks younger, Eric thought. No, not younger when you look in his eyes. He spent years on Rancho Sangre as Adrienne Brézé's bloodbank and fucktoy and tame researcher knowing that anything he found out would help them. He's pulled his tours too, and he managed to turn it around on her, which was outstanding.
Another advantage of this arrangement was that you didn't sit waiting for eight other aircraft to take off; they were climbing to thirty thousand feet within seconds.
Peter Boase grinned when Eric mentioned it.
"Do you think the Council of Shadows was in charge of setting up the deregulated civil aviation system?" he said, his voice still carrying a trace of the flat Upper Midwestern vowels; he was from Minnesota originally. "To make us all suffer?"
"Nah, just feels like it," Eric said.
The men laughed; Cheba looked at them blankly for a moment. Peter produced a paper sack from the refrigerator.
"Here's lunch. Take-out from La Casa Sena."
"They do take-out?" Eric asked, going over to the kitchenette and looking in the fridge. "Damn, real Mexican coca-cola with cane sugar, not that corn syrup crap the Iowans make us drink."
La Casa Sena was a place on Palace Avenue, just up from what had been the residence of the Spanish, Mexican and American governors, and was now a museum. The restaurant had been the fortified home place of a rich landowner once, back when the Apache raided all over New Mexico and far south of Sonora. It was a big two-story 18th-century adobe built around a courtyard, with a wine store and some fancy clothing shops as well as the eatery. He'd been there exactly twice; once when he was still trying to make it up with Julia, and once on police business, the investigation that had gotten his partner killed and himself disappeared into the world of the Council-Brotherhood war.
It wasn't the most expensive place in town by a long shot, but you could blow a couple of C-notes on dinner there and if you started hitting the wine list the sky was the limit. There was an old joke that Santa Fe was a city where ten thousand people could buy the state and fifty thousand couldn't afford lunch. Some people got nauseous after an adrenaline rush; Eric had always found it made him ravenous. At least he could do something besides stuff an MRE in his face this time.
Peter grinned: "Hey, it pays to have connections; there's takeout for us. Maybe we'll all die horribly, but we'll do it in style."
Eric nodded. "Beats maybe dying horribly while you're eating crap. Beats it all to hell."
"Right. And you wouldn't believe how nice it is to just say you need lab equipment and it appears. No meetings, no budget reports, no root-canal work, it's just there."
"What've you got?"
"Well, we've got a Bose-Einstein condensate particle... oh, you mean the food." Peter looked at a menu from the bag: "You want the grilled local organic chicken with basil pesto, poblano rajas, grilled onions, asadero cheese, heirloom tomatoes, and chipotle mayo on foccacia or the BBQ Pork po'-boy, with jicama–cabbage slaw, rattlesnake bean–sweet corn salad, on a multigrain hoagie?"
Eric took the po'-boy and bit into it. Cheba took one, chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and said:
"This... es como una buena torta de barbacoa," Cheba said, then went back to English: "Not bad... what did it cost?"
She'd been thinking of opening a shop to sell Mexican handicrafts when this was all over, assuming they survived, or possibly a restaurant. Adrian Brézé had agreed to get her a green card and start-up money as her price for helping with the raid on the great house at Rancho Sangre in California. Peter read it off; the young woman swallowed wrong and started to cough, so Eric pounded her helpfully on the back.
"Only problem with this trip is what's at the end," he said. "Going up against people with precognition and telepathy and all that good shit just makes me nervous."
It also makes me likely to die, but hey, goes with the territory, he thought to himself, keeping it silent because the others were more-or-less civilians.
Peter smiled. This time it wasn't just pleasant; there was something of a shark's grin in it as he tapped what looked like a tablet.
"We've been working on that prescience-blocking field."
"Well, Dr. Duquesne and me. The Brotherhood moved us from the place in Sweden to their big base in Ecuador... they wanted us to camouflage it for them. Which we did. They've got lots of engineers and technicians, but not many real scientists for some reason. It's odd—if I had the Power, I would so have been using it experimentally."
"What's it like, the base?"
"It's in the crater of a semi-extinct volcano, burrowed into these amazing natural caves... there's even a monorail."
"Do they have their own nuclear reactor?" Eric said.
Peter frowned. "No, a geothermal unit... why?"
"I watched a lot of old movies on my phone while I was doing stakeouts. You would not believe how boring being a detective is. Anyway, what's that?"
"It's the new prescience-blocking generator. The first one, the one that Harvey, ah—"
"Stole. That was a testbed, jury-rigged. This is the production model for small-scale concealment. We put in a big one for the base; they had protective Wreakings, but they're much happier now."
He grimaced slightly. "Though I think some of them thought it was... cheating."
"What were they like?" Eric asked curiously. "I haven't seen any of their bigwigs, and the grunts were all in-and-out, real concentrated on business."
Peter frowned. "They seemed like people trying very hard to be good, but it doesn't come naturally to them."
Eric shrugged. "That's me, sometimes. Whatever works."
"And they were really concerned with being able to hide. I don't think things have been going well for them lately."
"Sort of a defensive crouch, yeah, I got that impression too. Not a good thing."
Cheba looked at the tablet. "It isn't one of those little computers?"
"We used the case from commercial tablets. It makes it inconspicuous."
"So, this is a machine that can do what the brujos do?"
There was a carnivorous eagerness to the question. Peter shook his head.
"I wish. No. No, that needs a lot of... "
He paused. "I can't explain without math."
"But hey, you'll give it a try, right?" Eric said patiently.
Peter flung up his hands: "The experiments I did at the Rancho... It needs modulation. We'd need a control system as... as subtle as a human brain. One that worked like the human brain, or really like the Shadowspawn brain, on a quantum level. It's... it's like the difference between being able to play the violin and being able to make a loud noise."
"But," he went on, "we can make a really loud noise."
He tapped the screen. Leila and Leon were walking back from the cockpit as he did so; they stopped abruptly, their dark brows knotting.
"You're not there any more!" Leon said.
"I can see you, but you're not there!" Leila said. And added: "I don't like it!"
Peter stuck his hands protectively in front of the little machine as she pointed at it. "No! Don't hurt it!"
Cheba shook a warning finger. "You two be good! ¡Comportanse!"
"C'mon, Leila, let's play some Angry Rodents," her brother said.
"This is going to be complicated," Eric said thoughtfully as the children put on their earbuds and VR glasses. "How many of those things do you have?"
"Fair number. At least one each, but don't lose them... or get them fried. We checked, and Wreakings can fry them, they just can't be very precise because the Power can't sense them. There are some attachments here; this is the underwater model, for example. Dive-rated. Rechargers, testing monitors... we've got some nice kit here. They have their limitations, but they sure do make it easier to surprise the other side, though. "
"Bueno," Cheba said. She looked at the baggage rack, where her fashionista backpack with the built-in silvered machete rested. "There are some people, they should be surprised, you know?"
Dmitri's hands moved on the massive sniper rifle without requiring conscious direction; the three of them were lying in a little rocky declivity, with the barrel through the roots of a chamisos and Dale lying next to him with a little fiber-optic periscope peeping out to produce a picture on his tablet.
"Well, shit," he said. Then his head turned sharply after the departing plane. "Shit, did you catch that?"
Dmitri focused. "They're... gone. As if they stopped existing. As if they never did exist!"
Dale nodded slowly. "Yeah. Something really strange is going on here."
"Beh pizday! And we need to know what. Next time, no holding back."
He finished fitting the parts of the rifle into their foam-lined receptacles in the carrying case, snapped it closed and slung it over his back. Dale halted as they turned and started down towards the four-by-four.
"What?" Dmitri said.
"What just happened... the whole thing. Something Alpha Bitch said after I went for them at her brother's place. She said her kids were so pureblood that they might be screwing things up."
Dmitri snorted. "She is arrogant. They are too young, still latent."
Dale shook his head. "She said their future selves might be loading the dice from a long time from now."
Dmitri stopped, winced, and shrugged. "That is a... disturbing thought. But what could we do about it?"
"Kill 'em?" Dale said. "Anyway, it's a thought."
They were all very silent as they drove away down the dirt track. Behind them a convoy pulled out of the gate of the National Guard base.
Dale Shadowsblade nodded to the TSA agent at Albuquerque's airport.
"No, I've got no ID at all, and it wouldn't help you anyway. We psychopathic killers look like anyone else. Yeah, I've got a shitload of guns, knives and some China White in here, and a couple of grenades. I mean, I can't get addicted so there's no harm in the occasional line of blow, and I might need to kill someone, right? Yeah, it's more satisfying with your bare hands but now and then you're in a hurry."
The agent blinked. "What was that, sir?" he said slowly.
"We're not the droids you're looking for," Kai said with a giggle.
"Have a pleasant flight, sir, ma'am."
"You do the scanner," Dale said to his lucy-cum-renfield.
It was easy enough to convince a mind it saw and heard what it expected to hear, but computers were simpler still.
"You need the practice anyway," he added.
They walked through the security line, and then through the scanners. The agent looking at the screen reared back and clapped her hands to her mouth in shock, then sat back again and burst into tears. Kai was grinning her usual nasty expression, and it got broader as they went into the concourse. She snapped her fingers with both hands, made a little prancing dance-step, giggled, and people began staring at their smartphones and tablets and shaking them or punching fingers at the screens and cursing.
Albuquerque Sunport was laid out in a T, the B gates to the right and the A to the left, with a big bronze statue at the junction. It showed an Indian—a shaman—with a feathered headdress, chasing an eagle in a flat-out run and looking like he was about to fall over.
"Looks like one of those Navajo pukes," Dale said. "One of the goodie-goodies who thinks they can keep you off with sand-paintings."
He grinned too, at the thought. Maybe in the old days. Not anymore. A lot of the medicine-men could manage a little Wreaking without really knowing what they were doing, but a modern Council adept was in a whole different league, like an assault rifle up against a spear.
It was fun to suddenly turn palpable in the middle of the sand painting when you were nightwalking, and go on from there.
You know, it's really more fun when they believe in you beforehand but buy that Good triumphs over Evil shit. Then evil gets 'em and... yeah, that feels real good. Tastes good too.
"Looks like he's about to fall on his face. Or his ass, or both at the same time," Kai said, glancing at the statue.
Dale laughed. "That's appropriate. I'll handle this," he said.
Kai pouted. "Aw, I wanna—"
He clouted her alongside the head, making a hard smacking sound as the callused palm struck, and she turned her eyes down. The action was a relief; airports had a bad aura, throttled rage and frustration. A man started to get up and come towards them, until Dale stared at him for a second; then he sat down again.
At the B10 gate counter Dale walked up to the agent at the computer.
"You got four last minute cancellations in first class on the Alitalia flight to Paris with changeover in Atlanta," he said. "We're at the top of the standby list. In fact, we're the only people on it. Platinum premium boarding."
His eyes locked on hers, and he murmured, first in his own language and then in Mhabrogast. The agent's pupils expanded until the color was a thin blue rim around darkness...
"Why Alitalia?" Kai said, as they strolled down the jetway.
They both had one small carry-on; he preferred to carry nothing but a few favorite weapons and some Wreaking paraphernalia wherever he went and just pick up anything he needed at the destination. Behind them there was a scrimmage around the counter, with the ticketing agent mumbling incoherently and would-be passengers waving their boarding passes... or trying, if they had them on their smartphones and tablets. Behind that there was another frenzy, as the Bank of America ATM began to spew cash out onto the floor.
"Better booze on the Euro airlines," Dale said. "And a better class of flight attendant. It's going to be a long boring trip and we'll need something to do. Flying... flying makes me hungry."
Kai giggled again. Then she almost ran into his back as he halted for a moment.
"What is it?" she said.
"Something else from bossbitch. She's got a job for me. And it looks like a lot of fun. A technical challenge."
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>